As the Caribbean takes stock after Hurricane Irma, Amie Keeley speaks to St Kitts and Nevis tourism chiefs about the short and long-term prospects for the twin-island country
Unlike some of its neighbours, St Kitts and Nevis was “spared the full brunt” of Hurricane Irma and has resumed normal operations. It is now encouraging tourists to return to the region.
The island’s main airport reopened last Thursday and hotels and tourist providers are getting back to work.
But as footage emerged showing the full impact of the hurricane in other Caribbean islands, a member of the St Kitts Tourism Authority said: “When one island suffers, we all feel their pain. We are a family.”
Now, more than ever, is the time to encourage trade partners in the UK to “continue to have confidence in all the islands in the region”, according to St Kitts Tourism Authority chief executive Racquel Brown.
As with the rest of the Caribbean, St Kitts has faced tourism challenges in recent years, including the double whammy of the global crisis and a high rate of APD on UK flights from 2008.
APD on flights to the Caribbean was brought in line with flights to the US in 2014, but new challenges in the form of Brexit and currency fluctuations have followed.
That has been reflected in UK visitor numbers to the twin-island nation, which remained flat last year, with the Caribbean Tourism Organisation estimating around 10,000 people travelled there in both 2015 and 2016. In 2012, there were about 7,000 visitors.
“The Caribbean has been recovering, especially since the UK government reduced APD,” said Brown. “But we have gone through a few challenges since the Brexit vote and the impact on currency. We’ve seen a little decline in forward bookings but we are seeing it pick up again for 2018.”
British Airways has been key to the island’s growth. The airline added a second weekly flight from Gatwick to St Kitts’ Robert L Bradshaw airport in 2010, which includes a stopover in Antigua.
“It has really helped the island. We’re seeing more twin-island holidays or visitors are choosing to spend the day here if they’re holidaying in Antigua.”
The airline and tourist board also partner on marketing campaigns, online training and incentives for agents.
Brown said there were no plans to increase flight capacity but she would like to see a flight from Manchester “at some point”.
Cruise lines also bolster visitor numbers, with all the major lines scheduling calls to the island.
Brown said arrivals were deliberately spaced apart to avoid the risk of overcrowding, and cruise passengers were taken to visit nominated beaches separate from those frequented by guests staying in the destination.
Brown acknowledged the Caribbean had faced increasing competition from the Indian Ocean, with the Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius broadening their appeal to include kids’ clubs and family facilities.
“The Indian Ocean is a force to be reckoned with and the easy accessibility is a concern,” she said.
Has the Caribbean benefited from its ‘safe’ destination in light of terror attacks elsewhere?
“We don’t want to prey on anyone else’s issues, but what I can say is St Kitts is a safe place,” Brown said.
Brown is keen to point out St Kitts is much more than a Caribbean cliché and is a serious competitor to destinations more associated with the ever-growing trend towards experiential travel, offering adventure-filled and educational activities.
“St Kitts has always offered experiential holidays and the destination is benefiting from that trend,” she said.
“We have never been mass market – it’s always been a place for meaningful travel that goes well beyond lying on a beach.”
Brown lists the range of activities on offer, from climbing Mount Liamuiga to rainforest tours, zip-lining and paddleboarding.
She also highlights St Kitts’ rich history, which has become very much part of the tourism offering.
For centuries, the island relied on sugar production until that fell into decline in 1970. By the late 1980s, tourism became the number-one income generator.
Even so, Kitts was one of the “last kids on the block” to turn to tourism in the region and it was not until 2005 that the last sugar‑cane harvest took place and the government closed its state‑run sugar company.
A ride on the popular St Kitts Scenic Railway (pictured), built between 1912 and 1926 to transport sugar cane, pays homage to this history, transporting passengers around the island on a three-hour tour past plantation houses and disused mills.
More recently, Brown said the island had benefited hugely from Christophe Harbour Marina – a 2,500-acre luxury development in the southeastern peninsula that completed phase one in March this year.
It includes a mega-yacht marina, shops, restaurants, two five-star hotels, two beach clubs and real estate, leading many to hail St Kitts as a high-end property hotspot in the Caribbean.
“This is a whole new playground that opens us up to a new type of tourist,” Brown said. “It’s doing very well and is a major income generator for St Kitts.”
Meanwhile, a VIP lounge opened at Robert L Bradshaw airport in 2014. The YU Lounge features a private terminal and vehicle pick-up from the runway, and was only the second YU Lounge to open after that in Mauritius.
And with luxury hotel chain Park Hyatt choosing St Kitts as its first Caribbean destination to open a property in November (Travel Weekly, August 31), the future looks bright.
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